How Federal Disability Works

Federal System Legal Services in Maryland, USA

As a federal employee, you have access to the government’s comprehensive benefits package, including the option to receive benefits under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). Are you familiar with how to obtain compensation after sustaining a debilitating injury? Federal workers’ compensation is one option, but you may also be eligible for federal disability retirement. If you’re wondering how to qualify for federal disability and whether this benefit is right for you, read on to learn how federal disability works.

What is FERS?

The Federal Employees Retirement System is the US government’s modern disability program. Note that if you began work as a federal employee before 1987, your disability benefits come from the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). The provisions to qualify for federal disability retirement are largely the same under both systems.

How is Federal Disability Eligibility Determined?

There are two general requirements to be eligible for FERS disability—serving in a government position and having a qualifying disability.

Creditable Service with the Government

Your eligibility begins with how long you’ve served with the government. If you are covered under FERS, you must have been a full-time career employee for a minimum of 18 months to qualify. Those covered under CSRS need five years of creditable federal civilian service to be eligible.

Qualifying Disability

The second federal disability qualification is based on your specific disability. The rules are as follows:

  • You must have become disabled due to a disease or injury that prevents you from providing “useful and efficient service” in your current position, or your condition must have worsened while employed in a position subject to FERS. The validity of your claim is based on medical evidence from a doctor.
  • FERS and CSRS don’t offer short-term disability, so your condition must be expected to last at least one year to qualify.
  • Your employing agency must certify that it is unable to make reasonable accommodations for your disabling medical condition, either in your current position or through reassignment.
  • You must apply for disability before separating from service or within one year of your separation with evidence that you became disabled while still under FERS coverage.
  • You must apply for Social Security disability benefits before applying for federal disability.

How to Know if Your Disability Qualifies

The best way to understand if your disability qualifies you for benefits is to speak with a federal employee attorney. Still, the following additional information can give you a good idea of whether it’s worth applying for federal disability in your situation.

Occupational vs. Total Disability

To receive FERS disability benefits, you must prove that you have an occupational disability. This means your condition prevents you from performing one or more of your duties. This differs from total disability, which would inhibit you from performing most jobs in most industries.

For instance, maybe you injured your back and can no longer lift more than a few pounds. If your job requires you to lift and carry 20 pounds on a regular basis, it could be worthwhile to apply for federal disability. Because of this less stringent qualification, you may be eligible for benefits, even if you get turned down for Social Security disability.

Eligible Medical Conditions

Both physical and mental health conditions can qualify for federal disability retirement, as long as they interfere with your ability to perform at least one essential duty of your current position. Examples of potentially eligible medical conditions include:

  • Car accident injuries
  • Heart attack or stroke
  • Degenerative diseases
  • Overuse injuries
  • Traumatic injuries
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Bipolar disease
  • PTSD

On-the-Job vs. Pre-Existing Disabilities

Your disability doesn’t need to arise while in federal civilian service. It could be a pre-existing condition that has worsened over time. For instance, perhaps you have a history of migraines that have only gotten worse since working for the federal government. Even though it’s a pre-existing condition, your migraines may still be a qualifying disability.

You don’t even need to prove that the job itself caused your ailment. In fact, you could get in a car accident while on vacation, and the resulting injuries could still qualify for benefits. Unlike workers’ compensation, the injury can happen anywhere and be completely unrelated to your job.

Making Reasonable Accommodations

Your employing agency must attempt to provide “reasonable accommodations” that allow you to perform your duties successfully. These may include:

  • Providing leave
  • Restructuring the job
  • Permitting telework
  • Providing ergonomic equipment
  • Reassigning you to a vacant position of the same pay grade and tenure within your commuting area for which you are qualified

You will only be approved for federal disability retirement if your agency is unable to accommodate you while adhering to your medical restrictions. Be aware that if your agency attempts to reassign you with a pay decrease or in a location far from your current assignment, you are not required to accept it.

Federal Disability and Social Security

Your approval for federal disability retirement depends partly on you applying for Social Security benefits. Fortunately, you can still qualify for federal disability even if you’re denied Social Security benefits. Be aware that if your application for Social Security disability is withdrawn for any reason, your federal disability application will be dismissed.

Many federal employees are approved for both Social Security and federal disability. If this happens, you can expect to receive your full Social Security benefits along with a reduced disability annuity from the FERS program.

How to Apply for Federal Disability

Are you considering applying for federal disability retirement? First, provide your employing agency with thorough documentation of your medical condition. If your agency exhausts all attempts to retain you in a productive capacity, then it’s time to apply for federal disability. Here’s how:

  • Complete and submit form SF 3107, Application for Immediate Retirement.
  • Complete and submit form SF 3112, Documentation in Support of Disability Retirement Application.
  • If you are under 62 years old, supply documentation showing that you have applied for Social Security disability benefits.
  • Submit other supporting documents, depending on your responses on forms SF 3107 and SF 3112.

If you have been separated from federal service for 31 days or less, your employing agency will help you complete these forms and forward them to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Even so, it is your responsibility to obtain all the necessary information to support your claim.

If you have been separated from federal service for more than 31 days, submit your application directly to OPM rather than through your agency. Ask your former supervisor to complete forms SF 3112B, SF 3112D, and SF 3112E and give you the completed forms so you can submit them to OPM. If the one-year mark of your separation is coming up, send OPM your completed forms (SF 3107 and SF 3112) as well as the name, address, and phone number of the person you have asked to complete the remaining forms.

Once you submit your application, OPM will review your eligibility and notify you of its decision.

What to Do if You are Denied Federal Disability Retirement

If OPM denies your application, you can file a reconsideration appeal within 30 days. You have the best chance of winning your appeal if you submit additional medical evidence or other supporting information not included with your first application.

If your reconsideration appeal is denied, you still have options:

  • You can appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB).
  • If the MSPB also denies your application, you can appeal to the MSPB board.
  • Once you have exhausted these administrative solutions, you can take your case to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Can You Lose Federal Disability Benefits?

In general, FERS disability lasts for as long as you remain disabled. Here are three reasons why your benefits may stop:

  • Medical recovery: To prove continuing qualification, OPM may require you to receive periodic doctor’s exams. If evidence shows that you have medically recovered from your disabling condition, your benefit payments will stop.
  • Restoration of earning capacity: You will lose federal disability if other sources of income equal 80% or more of the current base pay rate from the position you retired from.
  • Administrative recovery: Your benefits will stop if you obtain federal employment in a position equivalent to what you held at retirement.

In addition, remember that non-disability FERS retirement benefits start at age 62. This means your disability payments will cease at that time, and you will be switched over to regular retirement income through OPM.

Seek Legal Advice from a Federal Employee Attorney

Have you been injured or disabled as a federal employee? Aumiller Lomax can educate you about your rights and answer any questions you have. Reach out to us to speak with a federal employee attorney who can help you understand how to access the benefits you deserve, whether through federal disability, federal workers’ compensation, or another program. Call us at 856-751-0440 or contact us online to request your free consultation today.